by Debra Danese for The Dance Journal | Photo Credit: Thierry du Bois
“O Send Out the Raven Ahead of the Dove.” And so began the opening sequence of Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal’s (BJM) tribute to Leonard Cohen on September 29, 2019 at the Annenberg Center. Dance Me paid homage to Cohen by bringing together three choreographers- Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Ihsan Rustem- an acclaimed team of designers, and 14 powerhouse company dancers. Add in some of Cohen’s most popular songs, and the result was an entertaining and extremely engaging performance.
BJM is known for presenting contemporary work that fuses different genres, while still basing itself on the aesthetics of ballet. The Canadian company premiered Dance Me, for which it has exclusive dance rights for five years, in 2017. The concept was inspired by Cohen’s work as a poet and singer/songwriter and follows the existence of life in five seasons. Under the artistic direction of Louis Robitaille, the company strives to present work that is both high quality and accessible to audiences. Dance Me truly represented those key values with brilliant dance artists and innovative musical, light, and media design.
One such instance was the use of a scrim that was lowered to only allow us to glimpse the bottom portion of the stage. Hands and arms could be seen typing enthusiastically on typewriters. Red lit balls were exposed in the dancer’s mouths as they opened in time to portions of the lyrics. Legs extended beneath the scrim to execute synchronized choreography. An especially effective moment was when a piece of paper was projected on the scrim and appeared to be kicked back and forth between dancers. Each element on its own might sound a bit unusual, but combined together it made for a light-hearted, entertaining piece.
Rainfall, snow showers, and other intricate scenic design patterns only enhanced what was a full-bodied work of movement. The choreographers layered solos, duets and group pieces with rich structure. There was diversity in both composition and emotion with alternating playfulness, sultriness, and somberness. The show was performed without intermission and was packed with athleticism. Dancer Shanna Irwin (filling in for Céline Cassone) and principal artist Yosmell Calderon led the company of virtuosic technicians. Complex partner work, with extensive contact and lifts, was intricate and flawless. It’s easy to forget how physically and technically challenging it is to perform this type of choreography when it is done with such ease and fluidity. Solo work was equally impressive and showcased almost all of the artists.
The music, under the direction of Martin Leon, could stand on its own. A vocal number by Saskya Pauzé-Bégin had a sweet innocence to it while Cohen’s “Suzanne” was hauntingly beautiful and danced with extraordinary tenderness by Irwin and Calderon. It seemed fitting to close the performance as it began, with a line from Cohen’s lyrics, “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” A fitting ending for an audience who were clearly enamored with Dance Me.
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